Five years ago, I began researching a disease that I’d never even heard of before: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), also known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis. Imagine my surprise when I found out that it was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, following on the heels of heart disease, cancer, and stroke. In the few short years since then, COPD has bypassed stroke to become the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and fifth most prevalent disease in the Veteran population, affecting approximately 15 percent of VA health care users.

For a disease of such considerable impact, relatively little is known about COPD. Our hope, as VA researchers, is that by increasing awareness of this devastating disease, greater resources may be made available to help scientists develop new therapies to treat it.

Why is COPD so devastating? It is a progressive lung disease that can cause shortness of breath, coughing, mucus production, wheezing, and other symptoms. Cigarette smoking is the primary risk factor for COPD, but long-term exposure to other irritants may also contribute.  In addition to shortness of breath, COPD patients commonly suffer from anxiety and depression, making this disease a serious medical, financial, and emotional burden on both patients and their families. Currently, there are no treatments available to halt the progression of COPD.

Here at the VA Medical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we’re looking at the immune system’s role in the COPD process and working to better understand the mechanisms that lead to COPD. In particular, we are interested in why some smokers develop COPD and others do not.  In order to directly study the cells involved in the disease process, we collect excess human lung tissue that has been removed for medical reasons. All tissues come from consented patients.

One of the most gratifying aspects of being a VA researcher is working with such a highly altruistic group of patient participants. I am always heartened by the willingness of Veterans to participate in studies such as ours. In order to learn as much as possible from each tissue sample, we have developed techniques to study the function of many different types of cells. For example, we can isolate individual cell populations from the lung tissue and determine what molecules they produce and how these molecules might alter the normal functions of the lung. In this way, we hope to identify differences in cell behavior between patients without and with COPD. We believe our work has the potential to identify potential targets for new therapies to treat COPD disease progression.

I consider myself highly fortunate to be working at the VA, where COPD prevention and treatment are integral to VA’s mission of providing high quality care. And I feel honored to have recently received a presidential award for conducting research that will be used every day to help our nation’s Veterans.

Christine M. Freeman, Ph.D., is a Research Biologist at the VA Medical Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan and a Research Investigator in Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Health System. She is one of four VA researchers who this fall received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the government’s highest honor for researchers in the early stages of their career.

Share this story

Published on Nov. 1, 2011

Estimated reading time is 2.8 min.

Views to date: 127


  1. Robert f January 6, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    I was diagnosed with copd and emPhysema ten years ago after bad surgery at a va hospital in memphis tn three weeks after my surgery I was diagnosed with it. My problem is getting my va a doctor at my new va hospital to except the fact that a doctor from a va hospital would do this and I feel I’m being ignored by stem cell research be thought of as a possible oPtion

  2. Thomas Hamilton November 22, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    I have COPD would be glad to help in studies any way possible 405-928-5985

  3. Jackie Ostema November 16, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    My husband died this year due to COPD. He was 63 years old. He smoked and was a shut in due to PTSD. He was a wonderful artist. He was a vietnam veteran. He struggled for every breath he took. Such a kind and gentle man. His 13 year old son and I miss him every day. Such a terrible disease.

  4. James Stroud November 16, 2011 at 1:57 am

    I began smoking at five and a half years of age. It was at a baby shower for my mom while we lived in Navy housing in National City, Ca.
    I smoked fo rthe next 56 and a half years. I decided to quit, named a daye, repeated it every time I lit up and every day when I awoke. I quit on the day I named.
    I am 70 year old, play RB three time a week for an hour and a half each time. I went to the doctor about a heavy cough I had for 8 weeks. This was in May. I was informed I had chronic emphysema and only 71% of expected lung capacity. I am now on a breather.. actually two, Spireva and Advair.
    The reason I started smoking is that when other peope smoked it smelled like caramel candy. It still does. Sometimes I stand down wind of smokers to smell the smoke. I am glad that someone is working on a cure for this. If heart muscle can be fixed by heart stem cells, could the same thing be true of lunge stem cells?

  5. richard shea November 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    I am a veteran and I have COPD. I have had it for a number of years. I would be willing to participate in your research. Let me know.

  6. Andre Noth November 15, 2011 at 11:54 am

    I am 36 years old and have been diagnosed for 4 years for having COPD emphysema. It blows doctors away to find someone so young that has this. I am currently active duty and fighting and running from med boards. I just got back from Kandahar which really took a toll on my lungs as well. For all the young people out there who think they can’t get it, think again.

  7. Shirley Shaw November 7, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    I would be willing to participate in reseach protocols involving COPD. I am 67 and have been dianosised with COPD for several years. I am on continous oxygen, three inhalers and use a powerchair if I need to go out of the house. I have a history of smoking and served as a Nurse in Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange. My email address is above and my cell phone is 916-956-9685.
    thank you

    • robert baker November 15, 2011 at 10:44 am

      I am 63 in Feb. I was in Pleiuke, Vietnam and I never did smoke I believe agent orange is the reason my breathing is bad. (314) 713-4490

  8. AL Powell November 4, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    I started smoking young. (5th-6th grade) I quit smoking cigarettes in 1985, but still puffed on cigarillos…4 – 5 day, but not addicted. Quit all in 1998. Thought I was short-winded, but would regain breathing after going smokeless for a while. I didn’t regain but slowing became worse and finally my Dr. told me I had COPD or chronic bronchitus…or emphysema! I’m still functioning w/o oxygen support but I know I’m heading there. The price I pay for the fun? I had. Now I can’t stand to be near a smoker. Cigarette smoke triggers a burn in my throat and I have to get away from it.

  9. Jaime Rivas November 4, 2011 at 11:35 am

    COPD is a very aggressive disease. It robs us of the ability to get oxygen into our bodies. Oxygen gets into our lungs but they cannot extract enough oxygen into our blood stream, it started slow and almost undetectable. I would run 10-miles a day in my 20’s and 30’s. In my 20’s I developed asthma. First it was during the spring and them it became unpredictable and needed to carry an emergency inhaler with me 24/7. In the 1990’s I had trouble getting a good and restful night sleep. I have a sleep study in 1997 but did not indicate significant sleep disorder. In 2000, I had surgery on my shoulder. After the surgery, the anesthesiologist can and spoke to me to inform me that I had experience significant apnea episodes during the surgery and highly recommended a Sleep Study. In 2001, I had a sleep study, it lasted 39-minutes. The technician stated he could not ethically continue the study because, the study at that time, indicated significant obstructive episodes. I was prescribed a CPAP. Two years later the CPAP was no longer providing me the restful sleep it had provided before. I had a second sleep study and the technician allowed it to run 25-minutes before stopping. I have been prescribed a Bi-pap while I sleep or NAP. I have since been diagnosed with COPD.

    Of those who have developed COPD and had little or no exposure to smoke either first or second-hand, has a correlation study been done to analyze the incident of SIDS and the patients birth or principal hometown(s) during their per-pubescent years?

  10. don smith November 3, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    to mr. mike, what part of i KNOW it is my fault didnt say it wasnt. can we just say get over the fault an try to help an cure it for the next generation.

  11. Richard A. Brothers Sr November 2, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    I was 19 when diagnosed with Asthma. I was 33 years old when I was diagnosed with COPD secondary to Asthma. I am now 57 and have been on oxygen 24/7 for 5 years. I never smoked, but almost my entire life I was exposted to second hand smoke from both of my parents, and then in the Army. Today I avoid smokers where ever I go. I won’t even sit next to one because of the smell of death. I am grateful that someone has taken a more active intrest in the causes of COPD and how to treat it. I doubt that I will ever benefit from the research, but I hope that at some point the research will point to better treatment or a cure. Ironically, both of my parents smoked until their death and they did not develope COPD. In fact to date, I don’t know anyone else that has this dreadful disease, but I know of many who never smoked who have died because of it.

  12. Mike November 2, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    Is the VA hospital in Ann Arbor the only VA hospital doing these studies on COPD?

  13. Francis J Elliott November 2, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    I grew up with mother and father aunts and uncles all smokers. I don’t think they knew then the dangers of smoking. I began smoking at a fairly early age, because it was more like a “rite of passage” in my neighborhood to smoke. Smoked heavily in the service, and we were even given ‘free samples’ of cigarettes. Unfortunately, when I quit some 35 years after starting, I was a 4 pack a day smoker. I’m 70 years of age now and I have COPD; use 3 inhalers; oxygen at night; and carry a ‘rescue’ inhaler. My greatest remorse comes from having smoked in the car with my (then) young son in the back seat, not realizing that we were poisoning him. Wife was a casual smoker, but, I was in fact “hooked”. It is one of those things that I truly regret ever having started !! Please encourage everyone you know to . . . NOT smoke. VA Healthcare is treating me and I’m extremely grateful to them.

  14. Mike M November 2, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    COPD is devastating to anyone who suffers from it, and it is not something that is only due to smoking, and therefore “your fault”.

    “An estimated 25—45% of patients with COPD have never smoked; the burden of non-smoking COPD is therefore much higher than previously believed”


    I’m glad the VA is making progress with regards to research on COPD.

  15. don smith November 1, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    didnt smoke in service till i went to vietnam at 18.1968-69 had this for last 15 or so years dont know if was smoking or agent orange was exposed to both. but i wish you luck doc. cause dont want anyone to suffer from this. semper fi

  16. allan graupman November 1, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    I’m almost 75 years old. Have had Asthma, and COPD most of my life. It is getting worse.
    There is no help for me, except for medications, oxygen when I sleep, and inhalers of various kinds.
    Still when I get an attack, it is devastating. Leaves me breathless, and unable to do much for a few hours afterword.
    What is important for you to know is that I have never been a smoker of any kind.
    I have had parents and relatives who were almost chain smokers. When I was young, I did not have any escape from the household smoke, especially in the winter. It was worse in the car when we traveled. Smoke everywhere.
    So the doctors have told me I am a victim of second hand smoke. I do believe that especially until recently in the last 10 years, where smoke has been prohibited in many public places. I was overjoyed that someone was working on my behalf and those like me
    who suffer on a daily basis.
    I would like to leave my lungs to science and researchers in this disease. That is if you or another research facility is interested. Please contact me if interested, and thank you for committing to this research. You are appreciated.

Comments are closed.

More Stories

  • During Sickle Cell Awareness Month in September, the American Red Cross emphasizes the importance of a diverse blood supply to help meet the needs of those with sickle cell disease – the most common inherited blood disorder in the U.S.

  • CaringBridge, a free online tool to communicate health news to family and friends, is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

  • Shahpur Pazhman flew Black Hawk missions in 27 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, resupplying and relocating Afghan ground forces and evacuating casualties to safety. Thanks to Bridge My Return, he's back in the air.